|Assam is aflame once more. Fear is in the air. ULFA killed more than 60 migrant labourers in the first week of January in one of the worst carnages the north-eastern state has witnessed in the last two decades. But, as Debashis Bhattacharyya discovers, this time ULFA’s alienation from Assam’s civil society is almost complete
Perched on a sofa in his spacious living room in an upscale Guwahati neighbourhood, Topon Lal Baruah recalls his first “taste” of the United Liberation Front of Asom (ULFA). It was in January 1992. The retired IAS officer who was home secretary in the Assam government accompanied Hiteswar Saikia, then Assam’s chief minister, on “a special mission” to Delhi. They met P.V. Narasimha Rao, then prime minister, with four senior ULFA leaders who Saikia had hoped would help broker peace.
In a symbolic gesture, Saikia presented the four militants with gold fountain pens asking them to use them instead of guns. Later, the four militants, including ULFA general secretary Anup Chetia, were provided a “safe passage” to Bangladesh when they promised they would bring ULFA chairman Arabinda Rajkhowa, hiding in that country, to the negotiating table. They went away, never to return, says 71-year-old Baruah.
Fifteen years later, the chairs around the negotiating table sit empty — and peace still eludes Assam. The latest rounds of talks broke down last September over a string of conditions set by both sides — the Centre and the ULFA-appointed Progressive Consultative Group (PCG), composed of nine mediators. The Union government withdrew its unilateral “suspension of military operations” order, the militants struck back, mowing down more than 60 migrant labourers in the first week of the New Year.
The planned, cold-blooded slayings chilled Assam, and this time ULFA’s alienation from its civil society is almost complete. True, fear is in the air — and as a Guwahati housewife puts it, mothers now think twice before going out to shop with their children in crowded markets where militants could set off bombs. But people are angry and disgusted with the militant outfit, which claims to fight for the Assamese but has ended up bringing deaths and misery to their families.
The turning point was Dhemaji, a town near North Lakhimpur, where the ULFA planted bombs at a flag-hoisting ceremony on August 15, 2004, killing at least 10 school children. “People then realised that no matter what the ULFA says it is actually out to kill and maim our own people,” Baruah says.
Clearly, sympathy for the ULFA has dried up except, perhaps, in a few pockets in rural Assam. People are increasingly seeing the sectarian group as a bunch of marauding thugs. And, today, if the militants have hardened their stance, so have the people. Abhijit Barooah, managing director of Assam Air Products (P) Ltd, says the ULFA militancy should be put down mercilessly. “Why has the government been trying to talk to a bunch of murderers and extortionists' In doing that, you are legitimising what they have been doing,” he says. Strong words indeed from a top local entrepreneur in a troubled state where not so long ago, businesses cowered before the lethal might of the ULFA.
Assam chief minister Tarun Gogoi acknowledges that it was “wrong judgement” on the part of the government to try and talk to the ULFA at this stage. “Our intentions were good and we believed them. But they never came to the negotiating table,” Gogoi tells The Telegraph. If anything, the chief minister says the ULFA had “taken full advantage of” the six-week suspension of military operations the Centre had announced and regrouped and returned stronger.
But popular patience is wearing thin in Assam. After years of violence and economic stagnation, Assam wants to catch up with the rest of India, but the ULFA is still trying to hold it back. And this new resolute Assam is for all to see — along the streets of Guwahati where glitzy shopping malls vie with swank coffee bars. The Guwahati skyscape is fast changing with high-rise apartments sprouting all over. And new flyovers are battling to ease the traffic flow on roads clogged with an assortment of cars. The economy — especially the real estate and the service sectors — is booming. After a decade-long stagnation, the state’s gross domestic product (GDP), which had grown by between two and three per cent, balooned by 8.2 per cent in 1999-2000 with a spurt in investments. For the last two years, the GDP growth rate has averaged six per cent, says Abhijit Barooah, who is also chairman of the Confederation of Indian Industry’s Assam state council.
Clearly, the new Assam is raring to go. Pradip Rajkhowa, who owns Ford Motor’s dealership in Assam, says many now have money and they don’t mind splurging on big-ticket items such as a Ford car, something that prompted him to open a Ford showroom in Tinsukia, the upper Assam district where the ULFA struck early this year.
Though ULFA still insists on establishing a “sovereign” Assam, not many are keen on this. In fact, many hotly contest the ULFA claims that Assam would fare a lot better if it were to become a country. “It’s utopian. Assam would never ever be able to survive in isolation as it does not have the resources and would eventually be gobbled up by its big neighbours,” says Dhirendra Nath Chakravartty, editor of Dainik Asam, a leading local language daily.
The public mood was largely reflected in a recent survey conducted by a local non-governmental organisation. Of the 25 lakh people polled in nine districts where ULFA has been active, 24 lakh voted against sovereignty. “I am an Assamese and an Indian and I am not going to trade my Indianness for anything,” Kakuli Mahant, an executive at a private company, says defiantly.
The ULFA is not listening. But, then, the very reason the ULFA was born — on April 7, 1979 in Sivasagar — was to create an “independent, socialist” Assam through an armed struggle. The militant outfit once had considerable influence over much of Assam, from Lakhimpur to the Cachar hills and Tinsukia to Golaghat. The ranks have dwindled, and ULFA’s sway is limited to upper Assam, though it often strikes in the heart of Guwahati. Both Arabinda Rajkhowa and Paresh Baruah, chairman and commander-in-chief of the ULFA, respectively, have been operating from Bangladesh, with help, Indian security sources believe, from Bangladesh and Pakistani intelligence outfits.
Over the past two decades or so, ULFA, which reportedly also has close ties with the LTTE, has killed and maimed hundreds of civilians, army and police personnel across Assam. Long running a successful extorting racket, it is seen as a “cash-rich” terrorist outfit. According to the New Delhi-based Institute of Conflict Management, ULFA has set up a number of firms in Dhaka, including media consultancies and soft-drink manufacturing units. It also owns three hotels, two driving schools and a private clinic in the Bangladesh capital. Some arrested ULFA members disclosed that part of its funds came from smuggling heroin from Myanmar, Assam’s neighbour.
But a sustained unified security operation against it — launched in the early 1990s — left the outfit bleeding. Assam police officials say the security forces killed 1,128 ULFA cadre members and captured 11,173 between 1991 and 2006. ULFA suffered its greatest reverse when the Bhutanese Army, prodded and aided by India, raided and dismantled ULFA camps in the jungles of Bhutan in December 2003.
But the offensive was followed by a peace offering. And not everybody was happy when the Centre declared a unilateral truce on August 13 last year, calling the ultras to the negotiating table. “It was an ill-advised and ill-conceived move. They were on the run when Delhi did this,” says Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute of Conflict Management.
Both the government and the ULFA-appointed PCG blame each other for the 2006 talks. Author and PCG coordinator Indira Goswami says the first two rounds of discussions — the first was attended by the Prime Minister and the Assam chief minister — were cordial. But the talks “halted” when, during the third round, the Union home ministry demanded a “written commitment” from ULFA for “a direct talk with senior ULFA leaders and that they should specify the date and the names of the leaders participating in it.” Goswami says ULFA refused to comply with such “pre-conditions” for talks. PCG member Mukul Mahant says the talks broke down when the Centre refused to discuss sovereignty for Assam.
The chief minister says the ULFA had set a condition right at the outset that the government must release five of its leaders lodged in Guwahati jail, including vice chairman Pradip Gogoi. “We agreed, but you can’t release these militants just like that. We needed the letter from them to make sure they would come for discussions later,” Gogoi says.
With the talks breaking down, violence has once again engulfed Assam. Some believe the way out now is by shunning knee-jerk responses to ULFA attacks. “The only way Assam and Delhi have always reacted to the ULFA attacks is by sending in more reinforcements. More troops are not necessarily the best solution. Otherwise, there would be no ULFA today,” says a former home secretary. His prescription: beef up the police, spend more money on intelligence and use the latest technology to detect and prevent the smuggling of arms and explosives. And never forget to provide training and create jobs in those backward areas where ULFA is active.
Security analyst Sahni believes that to “neutralise” ULFA, India will first have to “neutralise” Bangladesh, which has been harbouring the ULFA bosses. He says Delhi must put economic and diplomatic pressures on Dhaka and launch an international media campaign against Bangladesh for harbouring terrorists.
Others advise caution. “Nowhere in the world has peace flowed from the barrel of the gun,” says writer Goswami. Former Assam chief minister Prafulla Mahanta agrees. “Both sides need to sit with each other and talk without setting any conditions,” he says.
ULFA leaders may not have used the gold pens Saikia gifted them. But the gun, clearly, hasn’t helped them win the hearts and minds of the people in Assam either. And the battle now is between the pen and the gun.